I started my high school career as the shortest grade eight student in my year. By the time I graduated from school I had grown enough to be the second shortest. My best friend was the second tallest person in the school, towering over me at nearly two metres. As a result, the story I told myself for years was that I was small. This was reinforced by the bullying I endured through most of my childhood.
Then one evening, I found myself looking over the heads of almost an entire crowd of people as I searched for my wife. Suddenly I realised that I wasn’t as short as I’d believed, and I soon discovered that I was now well above average height. It took a while for the story in my head to change, but it was a strangely liberating moment.
CREATURES OF STORIES
Human beings are creatures of stories. From the earliest emergence of human settlements customs, culture, wisdom, learning, identity, and spirituality were all contained in stories that were passed down from generation to generation. Most sacred texts are simply collections of stories that help devotees to make meaning of the world and their place in it.
At its heart, spirituality is about owning our own story, finding our place in the bigger stories of our community and cosmos, and learning to repeatedly rewrite these stories in ways that make them healthier and more enlivening for all. That’s why it is problematic when sacred texts become fixed and are no longer open to new understandings based on the new chapters that we are living in our personal and collective stories.
At this time in history we are all living in a very challenging and chaotic global story. The pandemic is just one subplot among many:
- Fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories.
- Religious organisations aligning themselves with political power structures and losing their credibility and integrity in the process.
- Racial conflict, injustice, and protest.
- Gender-based violence, and prejudice against LGBTQIA+ persons.
- Economic shifts as a result of COVID-19 that have brought financial gain to some wealthy people, while driving the poor even deeper into their poverty.
All of these stories hold the temptation for us to tell and embrace an incomplete narrative. In the face of such overwhelming complexity, the urge to cling to a simplified story, and shut out anything that challenges our narrative, can be almost impossible to resist. But this is where a healthy and courageous spirituality is most needed and most effective.
When we make our incomplete stories the whole story we trap ourselves in limited perspectives and we find ourselves constantly on the defensive against anything that challenges our worldview. But spirituality teaches us that no story is complete, no story is the only story, and no story is unchanging. Once that realisation captures our hearts, we can learn to hold our stories lightly, and engage with the alternative stories of those around us—especially those that are hidden, marginalised, and silenced. If our spirituality doesn’t teach us to listen more deeply and carefully to the stories of people unlike us, it is unworthy of the name.
Injustice in society arises when those in power impose their story—or their version of other people’s stories—on those with less or no power. The task of those who seek to bring about justice is to allow every person and group to tell their own stories in their own way, and to believe them and receive their story, even when their story is difficult or painful for us to hear.
In the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the relationship between spirituality, stories, time, and place. But, for now, perhaps we can begin the work of holding our own stories lightly and listening to the stories of others by allowing the following poem to speak to us.
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